Where Old Endures
“But where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet and good tilled earth. For all hobbits share a love of things that grow. And yes no doubt to others our ways seem quaint, but today it has been brought home to me that it is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life. . .for things are made to endure in the Shire, passing from one generation to the next.” – Bilbo Baggins.
What a staggering concept Tolkien’s hobbit has given our modern minds to consider. For, miles away from the enduring shire, we find ourselves amidst the grinding wheels of perpetual industry – where things are, decidedly, not made to endure, but rather to satisfy an insatiable hunger for polyurethane flotsam.
For proof of this addiction, look no further than the sheer density of dollar/bargain stores. Birdhouses, brooms, potato mashers, and, *shudder*, canned clams; who among our forefather could have conceived such a remarkable array of “goods” would be available so cheaply. No doubt their enthusiasm would have waned when their dollar store hammer atomized after the first nail.
But the popularity of such enterprises should not surprise us – we are wary of those things that endure. Old houses are haunted; old clothes are outdated; old people are irrelevant. Wendell Berry sums up our manic phobia of old this way:
“The paramount doctrine of the economic and technological euphoria of recent decades has been that everything depends on innovation. It was understood as desirable, and even necessary, that we should go on and on from one technological innovation to the next, which would cause the economy to “grow” and make everything better and better. This of course implied at every point a hatred of the past, of all things inherited and free. All things superseded in our progress of innovations, whatever their value might have been, were discounted as of no value at all.”
In other words, somewhere along the way we made the unconscious conclusion that new is qualitatively better than old. And so we compulsively update and upgrade. Most disconcertingly, this acclimatization to dysphoria has spilled out into other, weightier, relationships, and many today are left wandering the world alone, yet to discover a companion with permanent sparkle.
The gardener too, sighs as he considers the meek and battered garden fork lying at his feet – the same one Great Aunt Anastasia once used simultaneously to unearth winter carrots and fend off a grizzly bear. In your hand is mother’s trowel, bent at an unearthly angle after the pesky root you tried to dislodge actually belonged to a hundred year old oak tree.
Suddenly you are caught up in a vision of yourself perusing the garden aisle at Stuff n’ Such; you witness a lifelike projection hefting various shiny implements complete with ergonomic grips and mobile pedometers. The allure of new beckons, and you find yourself wavering. . .
But can the virtue of things be reduced to the extent of their novelty? Has a clear relationship ever been established between convenience and “the good life?” Could one actually expect to find happiness at the bottom of Tolkien’s quaint cocktail of “peace, quiet, and good tilled earth?”
One thing is sure. A society that refuses to think critically of its innovation is one bound by pragmatism. And those benefits which take longer to bloom — the mastery of a craft; the wisdom of experience; the emergence of a river; the hallowed legacy of a golden anniversary?
Such inefficiency is surely a barrier to progress.